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(The Exercise Prize series of posts is the Center for Applied Rationality asking for help inventing exercises that can teach cognitive skills. The difficulty is coming up with exercises interesting enough, with a high enough hedonic return, that people actually do them and remember them; this often involves standing up and performing actions, or interacting with other people, not just working alone with an exercise booklet and a pencil. We offer prizes of $50 for any suggestion we decide to test, and $500 for any suggestion we decide to adopt. This prize also extends to LW meetup activities and good ideas for verifying that a skill has been acquired. See here for details.)
Exercise Prize: Be Specific
During YCombinator's Startup School 2011, Paul Graham and Harj Tagger did "office hours" onstage. One pair of entrepreneurs were doing a matchmaking (dating) startup, and Paul and Harj were trying to figure out what their startup did, exactly - for example, what their startup could do that the existing low-tech solution couldn't. (Video.)
Harj: Low-tech like, you know, just like word of mouth, telling someone "hey, you should like, meet up with my friend" or "we're getting drinks, why don't you come along?" Like, what can the software do that's specifically better than that?
Entrepreneur: I think that our software specifically is providing the better connections for people, um...
Paul: Providing the better connections for people...?
Entrepreneur: I mean, one way you can think about it, I don't know if this is the right answer, but... there's a lot of things that are happening in real life that they're trying to mimic online, maybe that's not the correct way to... Look at it like this: to give them an online tool to also do this, like they're already doing in real life, maybe they could reach, uh expand their reach through the online website.
This had been happening with most of the startups Paul and Harj were interrogating - they just could not seem to provide a customer use-case - and I couldn't stand it any more; which is why at this point I whispered audibly enough for a few nearby people to hear, "Be specific! Be specific!"
A moment later, on stage:
Paul: Hm. Not very specific.
I got some strange looks from the people sitting next to me.
I hope this provides some background for my guess that around half of Paul Graham's advantage is based on years of incubator experience, and the other half is unusual rationality skills of the sort that the Center for Modern Rationality is trying to figure out how to teach. Obviously this is only a very rough conjecture. But you can see the basis for the hope that - after a fair amount more work - we'll be able to offer a 2-day course for YCombinator entrepreneurs that eliminates 50% of the overhead from their conversations with Paul Graham.
(Also, note how this post starts off with a specific example - an instance of the concrete-abstract writing pattern in which you state the example first and the generalization afterward. This is one of the most common bits of nonfiction writing advice I dispense: "Open with the concrete example, not the abstract explanation!")
Related to: Map and Territory.
This post is based on ideas that came to be during my second-year nursing Research Methods class. The fact that I did terribly in this class maybe indicates that I shouldn’t be trying to explain it to anyone, but it also has a lot to do with the way I zoned out for most of every class, mulling over the material that would later become this post.
Types of map: the level of abstraction, or ‘how many steps away from reality’?
Probably in the third or fourth Research Methods class, we learned that any given research proposal could be divided into one of the following four categories: